Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Kasumi Parker
Category: Short Story
Origin* 1. And in the beginning, there was only fire and ash and fire and ash, searing holes in the sky, the fabric tearing and fraying at the seams.
2. The goddess, stirred from her slumber, descended from the heavens only to find her children crying, hands outstretched, veins constricted from their screams — eyes ablaze. Their bodies were consumed by the flames of death, black hair charring as the smoke settled into their lungs. Save us, they screamed towards the sky, towards their creator, please, please save us.
Their cries rippled through the Earth. Her children were dying.
3. The goddess floated down to the ocean, a kaleidoscope of broken glass, tumultuous and swelling. She raised her arms, a harmonious, mellow voice vibrating across the land — Your tears scorch me, your cries pierce through my skin, your pain is my own. Remember me — Let me relieve your suffering. Will you remember that it was the goddess, born from the sky, creator of life who lifted you up again?
The people screamed and begged. Yes, they cried, tears streaming down their chins; Yes, they croaked, lungs blistering and raw; Yes, they whispered, sinking onto the ground, heads bowed, chests heaving.
4. And she rose slowly from the water and smelted iridescent stones in the depths of the ocean — distilled from the blood of the orange trees, the blue heart of a flame, the indigo dew of shadows, and the jade on the shell of a thousand-year-old turtle. She forged and melted, so bright and harsh against the dying morning, seeping through the sky, until in her hands lay, glowing, the fabric of time. Shimmering in opalescent light, flowing through her hands and into the Earth.
The river of colors trickled into the cracks like cool winds soothing the land. It licked the flames and consumed them, they melted the swelling oceans and calmed them, they cradled the sinking landslides and lifted them. Swirling in nautilus shells and spiral galaxies, they filled the horizon to the brim, overflowing with prismatic brilliance.
5. O’ Great one, the people called, hands raised to the heavens, tears tracing down their faces, Let us thank you! Her fingers brushed their tilted cheekbones. Your mother, she said, melting into the clouds, I am your mother.
Will you return? The people cried towards the disappearing silhouette — the marmalade skies aflame, burning in the river of stars – water stained in silver licks of fire. Burning. Flickering. Flashing. The galaxies cutting through the sky born with the permanence of division.
6. And with each rise and set of the sun, the people rebuilt their lives. Their rice fields ran lush with supple green stalks, children scattered throughout the new villages, their laughter echoing through the valleys. Every year after the harvest season they would light bonfires, burn candles, dance with lanterns to remember how close the fire had come to destroying them, but their mother created the iridescent sky and stitched their land back together. But soon, she disappeared from their memories. The bonfires became a celebration of life which became a celebration of their own prosperity which became a symbol for their own perseverance and ingenuity and material developments.
Because when the time came, it was the men who developed language. Their scythes slicing through supple stalks, grains of golden rice dotting their sleeves. They would record the fruits of their labors — family providers, lonely paladins, kingdom rulers. Their origins harvested from their toils and societies built from their work. The women lingering in the shadows, tending to the flames while the men danced upon their crests of power. Year after year, their fires burned brighter, burned longer — the smoke traveling towards the heavens.
For days there was only fire and ash and fire and ash. But the mornings after, the villagers returned to their fields, blind to the smoke hanging over their horizon and the bleaching of their skies.
*Adapted from the Chinese myth “The Legend of NuWa” which tells the story of the goddess who patched the sky by melting five multicolored stones which saved humanity, causing the multicolored sunsets and sunrises, reminding men of her creation. ****************************************
Grass Roots It was a chilly summer in a small village on the Northern border of China. She was born with blazing yellow coronas crystallizing around piercing black pupils, thick glossy hair plaited into symmetrical braids, thin, nimble fingers tapered at the tips. They named her 软玉, nephrite — the translucent yellow speckled with whites and grays, hard and jagged — the shell around pure jadeite. She was the casing cracked open to reveal deep emerald hues, shining in soft glows. She was the keeper of treasure and gems — sacrificed to reach the riches underneath. She was born the eldest of two, exactly one year and six months older than her younger brother.
In the beginning, she would take her brother on the thirty-minute trek to the village well, hands curled over his, shoulders hoisting thick metal pails, their dark interiors sloshing over the pebbled path. She would sit in the one-roomed house next to the basin used to collect rainwater from the ceiling, washing the tiny fish she had bought from the market. Their silver scales glistening in the weak candlelight, the brittle fins digging into her palms. Thin rivulets of blood collecting in the bowl, dripping in unfurling beads while her brother went with her grandmother to the market to watch the street fairs. She would sweep the porch steps every morning, the rhythmic thumps of the broom head hitting the ground, plumes of dust coating the bottoms of her pants while her brother sat under the shade of their pine tree with his new straw toys. She would bike forty minutes to school with her brother on her back in the middle of the winter. Through hills covered with thick banks of snow and ice, lashes clumping together as her brother buried his face into her back, blowing into her jacket to feel the warmth of his breath roll over his face.
She went to school. At the top of her class, her test papers would be posted on the bulletin board in the school courtyard, the pages fluttering with neat block letters. Her mother was a teacher at the adjacent school and would run over every two days to check on her brother, whose first-grade class would be completing physical education class in the courtyard every afternoon. She would bring lemon popsicles, dragon-beard candy, or sugar-dusted cubes of sticky red bean for her brother, who would wait expectantly until her mother came. She would see them sitting under the shade of the school bulletin board, her brother’s sticky smiles and powdered lips — tasting of milk and sugar. She would watch her mother leave from the open window of her classroom, her dark hair bobbing up and down until she disappeared from the school gates.
Determined to leave her village, she would memorize English words by sticking notecards on the wall, reading them as she washed the clothes and cooked dinner for her family. She built a wooden slate in the front of her bicycle so she could read through short stories on her way to school. At night, when her family slept, she sat at the kitchen table under the weak candlelight and copied down words from the GRE dictionary, the tiny black print worming on yellowing pages.
The day she left for Mount Sinai on a full scholarship, her mother brought her to the airport. I’d like to hold an American baby one day, her mother said. I heard their sons are a treasure. ****************************************
Thank You Thank you. That is what my mother said to the nurse as Denise Marquez helped her up on top of the medical chair. The paper crinkled under her weight as she heaved her — now one hundred and thirty pound — round body onto the green cushion. Her face was small and pale compared to her bulging stomach that stretched through her pale blue sweatshirt.
“Now it’ll only be a minute before the doctor arrives, just let me know if you need anything else and again, congratulations!” Denise said, full of smiles. She knew how new mothers felt at their first ultrasound, and looking at my mother’s full belly, knew that she was getting it quite late into the pregnancy. She patted my mother’s shoulder and walked to the other side of the room.
“Well, I’ll be right next door, so just holler,” Denise had said as she closed the door. My mother sank into the seat, closing her eyes. She didn’t know anything about the baby, except that it was constantly dividing and dividing and strangely enjoyed pickles dipped in honey mustard. No, not it, he enjoyed it. Or she. My mother would know today. She had eaten all the right foods at the right times: Two spoonfuls of honey every morning, a boiled concoction of dried crabapples and lotus pods at night — her mother had called her every day in the beginning to remind her to drink at least one bowl a day. 酸女辣男, my mother had heard from her family, “in order to have a boy, you must eat spice”. Peppercorns, sliced green peppers, chili flakes — to test her limits and to make sure the child would be hardy enough, built from the fire, resilient, and brave — a boy.
Doctor Sam Elliot walked into the small room, introduced himself and snapped on a pair of purple latex gloves. He was an efficient man who liked to talk — maybe a little too much. He lifted my mother’s shirt up and covered her with a white towel. He took clear, glossy lubricant and rubbed it over her stomach, hands moving in small, quick circles. It was colder than she thought it would be and she shivered.
“Oh don’t be nervous, I’ve done this thousands of times. Let me know if anything is uncomfortable okay?” Dr. Elliot said. My mother nodded and smiled. She could feel her heart speeding up.
“Can’t you just tell what it will be?” she asked.
“Pardon?” he asked without looking up, adjusting the cables of the ultrasound.
“Oh you know, what gender the baby will be — just by looking at their mothers.” Dr. Elliot looked her over. Her hands gripping the sides of the medical chair, face small and wan under the yellow lighting. She was a small woman, barely over five feet tall, but Dr. Elliot could see the tension behind her dark pupils, her teeth gently biting her lower lip, waiting for an answer. A right answer.
“Well, Mrs. Xiang,” Dr. Elliot said, “we will see,” and pressed the transducer probe gently against her stomach.
“So right now, I’m going to move this probe around to look for the baby’s location and just check that all of the limbs and organs are properly developing… Right here, this is the baby’s chest and as I move to the right you can see the head…” Dr. Elliot narrated as pulsing black and white grains filled the screen. The mess of white streaks and black spaces, like individual pieces of sand, assembled the gentle slope of the belly, the delicate curve of the nose, the beating of the heart. Oh, my mother whispered, oh.
“I can play the heartbeat for you,” Dr. Elliot murmured as he focused on the heart and entered the audio player. Quick, rhythmic wooshes over and over and over. It was loud, strong, resilient and my mother could not breathe. It’s you, she murmured, you’re alive. As if for the first six months the being she had carried in her body was not real, was not truly alive. But now, now she could see the life, the humanity, and the future it held.
“Isn’t it wonderful? I’m going to take a profile of your child where you can see it’s little arms curl up at the top…” Dr. Elliot went on, but my mother had stopped listening.
“What is it?” she asked.
“What? Oh, if you want to know…” Dr. Elliot placed the probe over the body of the child and took an image. “It’ll just be a moment,” he said as he placed the probe down, analyzing the body with a series of boxes and numerical codes. My mother could see numbers pop up on the screen, bright flashes of greens and reds as a 3-D representation of her child materialized on the screen. The smooth, glossy gray hues outlined the body — tiny, peaceful, angelic. She could see the legs curled over each other and the arms folded next to her child’s head, the fingers slightly curled. She could feel them wrapping around her own after he was born, beautiful and strong with —
“Congratulations. You have a beautiful baby girl,” he said. My mother was silent for a moment. The heartbeat echoed in her ears.
“Thank you.” ****************************************
The Beginning To say I was an easy baby would be a complete lie. My mother went through a fourteen-hour labor and — going against her value of natural births — had almost asked for a cesarean section. And even after I was born, not only did it seem that I was insatiable, but I was also underweight, most of the five pounds and six ounces concentrated in my head. My body was covered in red, angry blisters that raged from the top of my head across my back and stomach, preventing me from sleeping soundly, making me scream every two hours for seemingly endless months. I did not play by any rules, rejecting the usual hallmarks of a developing baby. The first cooes at two months, first “social smiles” at three, first full night’s sleep at four — my parents watched their friend’s infants grow into lovely children as I remained stubborn and irritable, rarely exhibiting a wrinkle-free face.
My mother was grasping at straws, forced to return to work exhausted after only three weeks of rest after her pregnancy. A few months after my birth, in the middle of March, I was infected with a rash — covering my face in red splotches, swelling until my eyes were sealed shut. I screamed, hands flailing and legs kicking up into the air as my parents tried to sleep. The welts dotting my skin burned, searing into my face as my mother walked towards the crib, her head melting in the dark. Hands reaching down, she swaddled me tightly in a red blanket and dropped me on the living room couch — the farthest corner away from the master bedroom — and went back to sleep. I was hysterical, my lungs echoing screams throughout the sparsely furnished living room. I do not remember falling asleep.
My mother had been vomiting and bleeding irregularly, which the doctor attributed to post-birth stress. She was strongly encouraged to rest and take breaks, but between taking care of the household, maintaining her job as a postdoc at a laboratory, and caring for a newborn, it was impossible to find time for herself. She realized that she and my father could not do this alone, so she asked my father’s mother to pick me up and sent me to live with her in China for a few years, in order to restabilize their lives. My parents invited her to come live with us for a week before she packed up again and brought me with her.
My mother accompanied my grandmother and I to the airport and stood as my grandmother walked through the gates holding me, asleep in a short-lived nap. According to my grandmother, as she sat at the terminal waiting to board, I opened my eyes in wonder and pointed my pudgy fingers at the planes and the lights, laughing. The flashing beams — a kaleidoscope of light against the rough glass window and planes flying away escaped my hands but were captured in my rapturous imagination. The plane lights disappeared slowly into darkening twilight, the stars pulsing and shining. The blinding brightness in the sky. One by one. Piece by piece. They burned.
A few hours later, my parents would find that my mother was pregnant again with their second child, explaining the bouts of sickness and fatigue.
It would be a boy.